Experts’ Favorite Apps and Books for Learning Mindfulness Meditation

Portland Psychotherapy recently asked members of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science what they think are the best tools for learning about and practicing mindfulness meditation. Top experts from around the world chimed in to let us know about apps, recordings, books, and other resources they find to be the most useful, and we wanted to take the opportunity to pass their insights along to you.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation, sometimes referred to as present moment awareness training, builds skills that have been scientifically proven to improve psychological health. Dozens of scientific studies show that mindfulness training can increase well-being, reduce psychological suffering, enhance emotional processing, improve performance, and help people to focus their attention on who and what they care about the most.

Chances are that if you live in a large enough city there are probably a lot of community resources for learning about and practicing mindfulness (click here for mindfulness meditation resources in Portland, OR). For thousands of years, face-to-face interactions with professional teachers and fellow practitioners have been a reliable way to learn mindfulness meditation. Having a community of people who are supporting each other in practice is a great resource. However, there are also lots of other ways to learn to meditate. These include the options below.

We hope the following tools can be of help to you in building a kinder, more compassionate world for yourself and others.    

Apps:

Free/inexpensive apps

One-Moment Meditation This app has a great graphic and goes for a minute so it can also be used with children (Free)

Smiling Mind  is modern meditation for young people. It is a unique web and App-based program, designed to help bring balance to young lives. It is a not-for-profit initiative based on a process that provides a sense of clarity, calm and contentment. (Free)

Mindfulness:The Art of Being Human aims to help you: Explore insights into the human mind and behaviour; Step out of unhelpful thinking patterns; Gain a greater sense of connection to meaningful life experiences. Mindfulness practice can help you lead a more contented, happier and meaningful life. (Free, IOS, Google Play)

ACT Coach (only on iPhone for the present, intended shortly to on Android) is entirely free and was designed by the US Department of Veterans Affairs for Veterans, Service members and others who are in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with a mental health professional and want to use an ACT App in conjunction with their therapy. It offers exercises, tools, information, and tracking logs so you can practice what you’re learning in your daily life. (Free)

Conscious (Android only) This app suggests a different informal mindfulness task each day. You can set reminders to prompt you during the day and you are given the opportunity to report back on your progress each evening. An interesting aspect is that you get to see how many people have signed up to the task with you, creating a sense of community in using the app.

SuperBetter increases resilience – the ability to stay strong, motivated and optimistic even in the face of difficult obstacles. Playing SuperBetter makes you more capable of getting through tough situations—and more likely to achieve the goals that matter most to you.

Honest Meditation: (*if you’re okay with crude language in the service of humor, this app is a hilarious light take on mindfulness)  (Free)

Mind the Bump: is a free Mindfulness Meditation App to help individuals and couples support their mental and emotional wellbeing in preparation for having a baby and becoming a new parent. (Free)

Free but require subscription or in-app purchases

Pacifica This app includes daily mood tracking and relaxation and mindfulness tools. (Free download but require paid monthly/yearly subscription)

Petit Bambou (French language app) is the same as Headspace but for french speaking (Free but requires subscription)

Stop, Breathe & Think A great app for computer or smartphone.  Great intro and resources for going deeper.  Has a check-in that asks questions and suggests some useful types of mindfulness practice. (Free but requires subscription for unlimited features, web, IOS, Android)

Colorfy (mobile coloring book) Choose your favorite color and give your touch to beautiful drawings. Florals, animals, patterns, mandalas, cats, gardens, famous paintings, and more. ( Free but requires subscription, IOS, Android)

Headspace is meditation made simple. Learn online, when you want, wherever you are, in just 10 minutes a day. This is fairly expensive, with a monthly subscription, which will add up over time.

Habitica is a habit-building program which treats your life like a Role Playing Game. Level up as you succeed, lose HP as you fail, earn money to buy weapons and arm or, compete with your friends.

Apps requiring payment

SmartQuit uses ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to help people quit smoking. Developed at Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, SmartQuit is different. Smokers create a personal plan. They become very aware of their urges to smoke. Lastly they learn new ways to notice the urge to smoke, without acting on it. SmartQuit is the first smoking cessation “app” that has been tested in a randomized control trialwith quit rates 2-3 times better than quitting on one’s own. (Free but requires subscription)

The Sleep School App  helps you practice The Sleep School sleep tools & techniques until you have mastered them for life. The app delivers The Sleep School approach across its 5 core areas in a highly interactive audio-visual format ($3.99)

Mindfulness Daily This app supports quick, effective guided practices to reduce stress/anxiety, improve performance and enhance sleep ($1.99 plus in app purchases of audio)

What’s Up? Uses techniques from ACT and CBT, including mindfulness.

ACT Companion – the Happiness Trap app: (most highly recommended) The new edition of ACT Companion features loads of new content – guided mindfulness, written and experiential exercises – from none other than Russ Harris, author of the best-selling book The Happiness Trap. Simple defusion and acceptance techniques, easy values-clarification and goal-setting tools, powerful ‘observing self’ and self-compassion exercises – you’ll find it all here. In total, the app features over three-dozen exercises and tools, including two-and-a-half hours of guided mindfulness audio tracks, many of them featuring Russ’s voice.

Salute The Desk helps you stretch and relax, right at your desk. Improve your posture and release tension through yoga poses. Feel calm and refreshed with guided relaxations. Plan your sessions and set reminders to practice. Developed by a qualified yoga, tai chi and qigong instructor. ($2.99)

buddhify states it is “the most convenient, best value and most beautiful meditation app available today. Helping people around the world reduce stress, sleep better & be present in the midst of it all.” Certainly is the best looking mindfulness app! ($4.99)

Insight Timer Free for iPhone and Android with option of purchasing upgrades, $2.99 for iPad. Worth it for the Tibetan bells alone, now expanded with many meditation practices of varying lengths.

Websites:

Books:

For kids and teens:

Mindful parenting:

Audio:

Videos:

Blue light at night is bad

We have known or suspected for quite some time that there are significant harmful health and environmental consequences associated with excessive light use at night, especially blue-rich light. Advances in technology and the widespread transition to light emitting diodes (LEDs), which emit substantial amounts of blue light, have made this especially important to understand and address.

The American Medical Association (AMA) recently released an important and timely report, providing scientific evidence in support of these concerns. They affirm the potential health hazards of blue-rich light, including its links to increased risks for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and circadian rhythm disruption. They also find that blue-rich LED street lighting is five times more disruptive to our sleep than conventional street lighting and that brighter neighborhood lighting is associated with reduced sleep and impaired daytime functioning.

This interesting article outlines some of the AMA’s findings and describes some of the implications.

On an individual level, there are things we can do to minimize the impact on our sleep and our health from light exposure at night.

Here are some suggestions for more healthy and responsible light use:

  • Use “warm-white” or filtered LEDs to minimize blue light emission
  • Choose products with adaptive controls, such as dimmers, timers, and motion sensors
  • Dim or turn off lights during overnight hours
  • Light only the area needed in the minimal amount required
  • Avoid using blue-rich light devices (e-readers, laptop and phone screens, etc.)  in the evening as much as possible (2-3 hours before bedtime)
  • Download an app that filters out the blue light from your devices (http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/get-good-nights-sleep-filtering-phones-blue-light/)

Top 5 Mindfulness Resources

The science of mindfulness is a very hot topic these days.  In agreement with the research, we find mindfulness to be a very helpful skill to have that is effective for a variety of problems that come with everyday life, such as distractibility, emotional reactivity, and impulsive decision making.

If you’d like to learn this skill, we have one one simple piece of advice – practice!  Any skill that you want to get better at (gardening, sports, playing an instrument) requires practice, and plenty of it.

In order to help you to learn how to train your mind in this way, we’ve put together a list of our top 5 resources for learning mindfulness. Some of these applications and websites are also helpful for providing a sense of community around mindfulness, which helps with both accountability and feelings of connection. For example, the insight timer shows you how many other people across the world are using the insight timer at the same time.

2 Minute Beginner’s Guide Animation

Free

Why We Like It: Having a very quick, to-the-point, and accurate explanation can often be more helpful than a big, comprehensive tool.  We also like this explanation because it clarifies some of the common misperceptions of what mindfulness practice is.

Headspace

iPhone

Android

10 day free trial, subscription following trial

Why We Like It: This is a great app because the creators paid lots of attention to the interface.  This is the current industry leader, and it shows in the quality.  When you first begin to use it, the app has you watch a series of short and fun animations to quickly orient you to what mindfulness is and what it is not (the videos are worth watching).

Another reason why this app made our list is because the developers made it in a way that will have a higher likelihood of keeping you engaged over time.  Instead of moving on to something else once the initial motivation has passed, there is a greater chance you’ll stick with Headspace because each day has a different guided file, it gives you clear goals, and you get to choose to practice on specific issues (a series on anxiety, depression, pain, etc).

Insight Timer

iPhone

Android

iPad

Free for iPhone and Android with option of purchasing upgrades, $2.99 for iPad

Why We Like It: This app is worth acquiring for the Tibetan bells alone, but in the past year or so, the app has expanded to include a wide variety of meditation practices of varying lengths.

Stop, Breathe & Think

Web

iPhone

Android

Free

Why We Like It: This is a great app that works either on the computer or a smartphone.  It provides a great introduction and resources for taking your practice deeper, as well.  One thing it also does that the others don’t do is offer a check-in that will ask you questions about how you are feeling in order to suggest some useful types of mindfulness practice.

Tara Brach’s Guided Meditations

Free

Why We Like It: Tara Brach is most widely known for her book Radical Acceptance.  On her website she regularly posts guided meditations to follow along with.  Every meditation instructor has their own style, and Tara has an easy style that many people tend to like.  Additionally, we’d highly recommend listening to her her 2-part introduction to meditation talk:

Part 1 – Do You Make Regular Visits to Yourself (57 min)

Part 2 – Do You Make Regular Visits to Yourself? (55 min)

If you’d like to see our full list, please visit

Resources for Learning Mindfulness Meditation in Portland, Oregon

Things to Know Before You Say “Go”

In a previous post, I wrote a bit about the growing exploration among researchers in the use of psychotherapy-related smartphone apps for anxiety. In more local news, a Portland psychologist Elsbeth Martindale, PsyD, has developed her own smartphone app. The app is based on a collection of cards she developed called Things to Known before You SayGo.”

I had coffee with Dr. Martindale several months ago, and she talked about how the cards came out a conversation she was having with young woman about becoming involved with a man. Dr. Martindale had a moment of inspiration: she said she realized this woman had very little understanding of how to evaluate whether this guy could be a reasonable match for her or whether he was a person she should stay far, far away from! This woman simply didn’t know what to look for, and no one in her life had helped her learn how to make this kind of decision. Following this realization, Dr. Martindale began writing down questions she thought this person should consider. Her assortment of cards evolved from there.

The cards include items such as, “Is this person able and willing to listen to my feelings and desires?” (For a sample of items, click here.) They are handsomely packaged, and Dr. Martindale states they have been useful for her clients. Dr. Martindale has since developed an iPhone app version of the cards. It’s fair to note that there hasn’t been any research done on these cards, but people have had positive experiences with them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I find the potential in technology very exciting, and it’s fun to see enterprising professionals experiment with different forms of media.

Should I Be Using a Smartphone App for Anxiety Instead of Playing Angry Birds?

Recently, there’s been some press on the development of smartphone apps for mental health issues. I think this a very worthy area of pursuit. For a few dollars to download, thousands of people could conceivably practice more effective ways to deal with their anxiety—on the bus, subway, or waiting in line. Smartphone apps have potential the offer treatment to people who would not access or do not have access to psychological services.

Key words: “Have Potential

As much as I support the efforts of researchers in exploring these pursuits, I’d like to acknowledge that we’re at the very early stages of developing apps and testing out their effectiveness. Two things must happen first:

1.) There should be evidence that people who use a particular app show improvements in what the app is designed to address.

2.) The app should be compared against a convincing placebo.

What Do I Mean By” Placebo”?

When judging that a treatment is effective—particularly something like an app—it’s important to compare it against a credible placebo. By placebo, I mean an app that looks like it could be helpful but is not designed to be.

There’s a rich literature that shows that sugar pills (i.e., placebos) relieve a whole host of ailments such as pain, anxiety, and depression. If you gave a group of people a smartphone Scrabble app and told them that it had been specially designed to treat anxiety, about a third of those people would likely show some improvement. Sometimes the simple fact that we belief we’re receiving treatment causes us to feel better.

Some people argue, “If it works, what does it matter why it works?” I sympathize with this position, but what’s important to consider is that if we don’t understand how and why a treatment is effective, then it makes it much harder to make it even better. A sugar pill may make someone’s headache go away, but aspirin is better, and extra-strength aspirin may be even better in some cases.

A February New York Times on smartphone apps for anxiety article suggests that this may be a concern for one of the more prestigious labs studying this technology. A study through a Harvard University lab looking at an anxiety app found that people who used an app that was not designed to decrease anxiety showed as much improvement as those who used the anxiety app. These people did better than a “wait list” comparison group that did not receive an app at all. Moreover, people who heard about the app through a news story in the respected publication The Economist were more likely to show improvement, overall—whether they had the real app or the comparison! These findings hint that there may be a placebo effect. At best, it suggests that the researchers don’t quite understand why their app may or may not work.

However, the great thing about this research is that computer programs such as apps offer ways to compare against convincing placebos to a degree that’s much harder with psychotherapy. Even though this may be a bump in the road, it still offers opportunities for learning. It also demonstrates the integrity of the researchers who attempted to compare their app against a convincing placebo.

Adjust Your Expectations

I think it’s also worth noting that the impact of apps on psychological issues will likely be modest. I doubt there will be a social anxiety app that will turn a wallflower into the life of the party. This isn’t a bad thing: if a $2.99 app can help people manage their lives even a little better, that’s a success in my book.

Some Parting Words

In conclusion, I think the use of smartphone apps for treating problems such as anxiety has great potential to make useful, evidence-based treatments available to a greater number people. At the moment, the research is still in its infancy. I can’t recommend any particular apps just yet, but if you’re interested, you might consider getting involved in a research study and helping to move this process along. At this writing, the Harvard lab conducting this work has a sign-up sheet on their website. Or if you find Angry Birds more soothing, keep launching birds at piggies for now until something with proven effectiveness hits the market.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy